How to improve Sacramento’s light rail? The debate starts this week

Sacramento Regional Transit officials will meet this week with downtown business leaders to discuss ways to make transit feel safer and more attractive.
Sacramento Regional Transit officials will meet this week with downtown business leaders to discuss ways to make transit feel safer and more attractive. Sacramento Bee file

Weeks after being criticized for lackluster service, Sacramento light rail and bus officials will begin a yearlong series of monthly meetings with downtown business leaders on ways to make transit more attractive before the Kings arena opens next year.

The first meeting, on Wednesday, will focus on safety issues and on reducing the number of scofflaw riders who avoid paying fares, according to Sacramento Regional Transit.

Several downtown business leaders, including Sacramento Kings principal Mark Friedman and Republic FC soccer team founder Warren Smith, last month called on the transit agency to move quickly to clean dirty stations, add security and improve overall service so that public transit is more useful and will attract the tens of thousands of people who will come downtown when the arena is built and other central-city development occurs.

RT officials responded by creating a System Improvement committee to meet with the business community. Wednesday’s meeting is open to the public and will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at RT headquarters, 1400 29th St. Monthly public meetings will continue through the end of the year.

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, chairman of the improvement committee, said last week he wants to see changes made but that he recognizes that means trade-offs if there is no new money available for improvements. As head of the RT board last year, Serna requested that downtown business leaders give their opinions.

RT, which operates light rail and most buses in Sacramento County, suffered a dramatic loss of revenue during the recent recession and was forced to cut service. The agency has begun to financially recover in the past two years, but it has not been able to restore service to pre-recession levels. Fares typically pay for one-quarter of the cost of providing transit. The rest of the funding comes from taxes and government grants.

Any recommendations the committee ends up making to the full RT board “must have cost estimates associated with them so that the board and the public understand the necessary resource allocation that is involved,” Serna said. “It will also spark a healthy community discussion about trade-offs and priorities.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see Regional Transit make the changes necessary to offer current and potential new riders a safer, cleaner and more convenient experience.”

RT General Manager Mike Wiley has been putting together a list of potential improvements for the committee to discuss, including some that currently do not have funding.

“The board has the option of reprioritizing and reallocating resources,” Wiley said. “I’m very hopeful we will be able to enhance the quality of our service and become more cost-effective with the existing resources we have.”

The agency plans at some point to have discussions with the Sacramento Kings about what level of enhanced service will be needed for events at the arena, which is being built near several light-rail stops downtown, and how that service will be paid for.

Several downtown business leaders have said they would like to see the transit station nearest the arena, likely at Seventh and K streets, enlarged and redesigned, with an iconic feel and visual connection to the arena. An analysis suggests about 10 percent of arena-goers may arrive via transit.

Wiley said that would require money that RT does not currently have in its budget.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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